- The National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA), a statutory body under the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change, has asked the Assam government to put an immediate stop to mining activities in the intervening area between Kaziranga and Karbi Anglong hills.
- Mining activities are cutting off wildlife corridors and vital wildlife habitat essential for long-ranging species like Indian elephant and tigers, the NTCA has said.
- The Kaziranga National Park is at a “high risk” of “permanently” losing its habitat connectivity with the larger Karbi Anglong landscape.
Hemmed in by rapacious quarrying and river erosion, India’s Kaziranga National Park (KNP) that harbours the world’s largest population of great Indian one-horned rhinoceros (Rhinoceros unicornis), is at a “high risk” of “permanently” losing its habitat connectivity with the larger Karbi Anglong landscape, a report has warned.
The Kaziranga National Park and Tiger Reserve (KNP/KTR) in central Assam is sandwiched between the Brahmaputra river in the north and the verdant Karbi Anglong hills in the extreme south, together making up the 25,000 square km Kaziranga-Karbi Anglong Landscape (KKL).
The expansive grasslands, swamps and open jungle of the park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, are home to 2,413 rhinos, 104 tigers and over 1,100 elephants. During the fierce monsoons, when the Brahmaputra breaks its banks and the water floods Kaziranga’s grasslands, Karbi Anglong serves as the refuge for the wildlife that migrates over to the hills.
This landscape connectivity that is crucial for the survival of long ranging species like Indian elephant and tigers, is being targeted by indiscriminate stone mining/quarrying units, according to a report by the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) that has been accessed by Mongabay-India.
“Wild animals can get the sense of upcoming flood and they often move towards high land in the landscape during the flood. Though there are some highlands in Kaziranga, the Karbi Anglong hills serve as a natural highland that are visible to the wild animals from a distance,” explained scientist Bibhab Kumar Talukdar, secretary general and CEO of NGO Aaranyak, which works on wildlife and nature conservation in northeast India.
The NTCA has blamed the “stone mining/quarrying and stone crushers established in the intervening area” between Kaziranga and Karbi Anglong hills for “destruction of wildlife corridors and vital wildlife habitat which is essential for long ranging species like Indian elephant and tigers.”
Observing that “lack of corridors and habitat contiguity for wildlife dispersal will have serious implications for long-term conservation of wide-ranging species like tigers and Indian elephants of KTR”, the NTCA has directed the Assam government to take “immediate action” to stop mining, quarrying and stone crusher operations within a 10 km radius of the tiger reserve.
The park spread out over an area of 860 square km has the highest density and the third highest population of tigers in the country, based on the 2014 tiger survey.
The report and directive comes in response to a complaint filed by activist Rohit Choudhury alleging that significant environmental degradation and habitat destruction has been happening in the foothills of Karbi Anglong hills which is a prime elephant habitat and also part of Kaziranga – Karbi Anglong Elephant Reserve.
The NTCA has noted that these stone mining/quarrying and stone crushers are also “responsible for drying and siltation of several natural streams and rivulets that flow from Karbi Anglong hills towards Kaziranga.”
Welcoming the NTCA directive, Talukdar said casualties of wild animals could increase during the flood season if the natural movement is disturbed due to unscientific mining.
“Some animals, like elephants, use both flood plains of Kaziranga and hills of Karbi Anglong for seasonal needs and the free movement of wild elephants is essential. Further, if mining continues in Kaziranga-facing hills of Karbi Anglong, silts and stone dust can damage the wetland ecosystems of Kaziranga and that in turn could create more problem for wetland and grassland dependant species in Kaziranga,” Talukdar said.
A month after the report, Assam’s Principal Chief Conservator of Forests NK Vasu, said illegal mining activities have stopped along the Kaziranga-facing Karbi Anglong hill slopes.
“Action is being taken and anything that is detrimental will have to stop,” Vasu told Mongabay-India.
KNP director Akashdeep Baruah informed Mongabay-India that the impacts of mining on wildlife have been related to an empowered committee in a deposition submitted by the forest department following the NTCA report.
“We have given deputation to the empowered committee noting the disturbances caused to wildlife. Mining is falling right in the path of animal corridor. Animal movement is through this region,” Baruah said.
Twin threats to habitat suitability
The damage to the north-facing (Kaziranga-facing) hills of Karbi Anglong is visible from far away, the report said, pointing out at least 12 villages of Karbi Anglong where a number of stone quarries and stone crusher units are located within a distance of two to four km from the southern boundary of the tiger reserve.
More than 40 stone quarries have been allowed in the hills slopes facing National Highway 37 that passes along the southern boundaries of the national park, the assessment said, referring to a 2003 communication between the then KNP director and the forest department.
Concerns on mining/quarrying in the intervening area between the southern boundary of KNP and foothills of Karbi Anglong hills were raised as far back as 1996, the report points out.
Besides the issue of illegal mining and stone crushing, the NTCA has touched upon river erosion as a “natural threat” to Kaziranga.
It has stated that the “precious core (of the park) populated with high density of Indian rhino, Indian elephant, wild buffalo and tigers, is getting reduced”, due to the twin threats of mining and erosion.
“While the southern part of Kaziranga – Karbi Anglong landscape is experiencing fast paced urbanisation coupled with destruction of Karbi Anglong hills due to illegal and rampant mining/ quarrying activities, the Kaziranga is also facing another natural threat on its northern boundary.”
“Every year, the river Brahmaputra is continuously eroding the northern and eastern bank of Kaziranga core,” the report annexed with the NTCA letter said.
However, Baruah refused to attach a negative perception to erosion.
“Erosion is a part of flood plain ecology, I won’t say it from a damaging point of view. It is a natural problem, we gain some areas we lose some areas. We also don’t advocate embankments because it affects the flood regime,” Baruah said.
The landscape of the national park is “the creation of natural forces of silt deposition and erosion as has been effected by the river Brahmaputra over the centuries”, according to a technical report on the park.
This process of erosion and deposition is an ongoing process, which becomes acute during the floods that occur at regular intervals during the monsoon season, the technical report states.
A 2014 study by researchers from the Delhi University’s department of geography had pointed out that the area available for each rhino had decreased since 1990 while the number of rhinos had gone up. The study said the area available for each rhino during 1990 was approximately 0.31 square km. The area decreased to 0.16 square km during 2009.
“From this, it is clear that, year by year the rhinos are increasing because of the presence of suitable habitat and management effort. But simultaneously, the suitable area available for each rhino is decreasing in Kaziranga. There are also other herbivores such as wild buffalo and swamp deer which can give competition to rhino for food. The park maybe reaching carrying capacity for rhinos.”
Asked on habitat suitability constraints, Baruah said there is a “steady increase” in rhino population and there is potential for more rhinos. “It is not overpacked,” Baruah said.
The NTCA assessment also talks about a 2010 report by the Comptroller & Auditor General (CAG) of India titled “Performance Audit of Kaziranga National Park – Issues and Challenges” that shed light on the “ever decreasing forest cover due to mining of stone from the hills coupled with the sound pollution from the machineries used in mining operations” forcing the elephants to enter human settlements damaging crops and houses of the settlers.
Flagging concerns that a protected area like KTR, is being managed without a proper Tiger Conservation Plan, the NTCA has also asked the state government to take necessary steps for preparation of a TCP for core, buffer and corridor areas and for notifying eco-sensitive zone around KNP and KTR.
Officials of the Assam forest department, however, said a TCP had been submitted but the NTCA had sought certain clarifications which is being processed.
The NTCA has sought a TCP “at the earliest” for the Kaziranga Tiger Reserve as mandated under Section 38V of the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972, to continue funding assistance under the ministry’s Project Tiger scheme.
“Keeping in view the long-term conservation of mega herbivores like Indian rhinoceros, Indian elephant and mega carnivores such as the tiger, the Kaziranga Tiger Reserve boundary may be rationalised by including areas of Karbi-Anglong adjoining Kaziranga,” the report suggested.
Choudhury described the mining-riddled hills slopes as “an ugly scar”.
“Apart from the physical disfigurement of Karbi Anglong hills, another worrying development is abandoning of these areas by most of the wildlife. A decade ago, it was common to hear calls of barking deer and Hoolock gibbon near the foothills and now it has become very rare. Similarly, gaur, Indian elephants, Indian rhinos and tigers and many other wild animals have abandoned the area,” Choudhury told Mongabay-India.
[Editor’s note: The sentence “The park spread out over an area of 860 square km has the highest density and the third highest population of tigers in the country” was updated to specify that KNP has the highest density based on the 2014 tiger survey results.]